Wednesday, August 02, 2006

A question of tone

What if a book you’re reading to review inspires in you feelings of outrage, shock, indignation? How do you translate those strong reactions into an acceptable tone for an academic journal?

Let me elaborate just a little bit, without getting too specific.

The book is polemical...it seems to have been written solely to cut down the group the author is writing about. The author even resorts – more than once – to calling folks in this group “ugly”, whereas she characterizes her “heroes” as beautiful and graceful! As well, the scholarship is notably and obviously questionable. The author fails to provide references for many of her more dubious claims. She makes claims that are patently false. She homogenizes a very diverse group in an egregious manner. She writes things like “[Scholars of X] have always written about X in such-and-such a way…” When I am alarmed by this misrepresentation, and very curious to know just who she thinks these scholars are – did I miss something important in my field? – I turn to the endnote and find that she has included a single reference, and it is to someone who really cannot be characterized as a Scholar of X! Further, the author doesn’t refer to any sources less than ten years old, when the stakes of the issue she’s writing about have changed dramatically in the last decade – there are prominent books published in the last eight or so years whose very existence invalidates her argument, full stop, and neither they nor their authors are mentioned.

Do you see what I mean? This is scholarship at its worst, and it makes me scream. It offends me, as I'm sure my liberal use of italics in the previous paragraph makes clear. I am certain, though, that a tone of moral indignation just will not fly in the academic press, dispassionate as it requires us all to pretend to be.

Have any of you had to write a review of such a book? What kind of tone did you adopt?

3 comments:

lil'rumpus said...

Yep, that IS a tough one. The easy way out is to describe the book in as straightforward a way as you can in terms of its overall arguments and content and then do a bait-and-switch with something that praises the book for its lofty goals or aims and then goes on to demonstrate the failures in reaching those goals. This way you don't justify the polemics by accidentally repeating them.

loren said...

yes, a tough one. I recently reviewed a book that doesn't sound nearly as infuriating as your present task, but which had a serious polemical slant that interfered seriously with the argument. I tried to back out of the review at first, but eventually hammered out something that I think was reasonably constructive (although the version that appeared in print had a couple of minor editorial gaffes, one mine, the other the editors'). But if there's little or nothing constructive to be said about the book before you, do you want to be the one pointing that out in print, at this stage in your career? I guess being junior cuts both ways: on the one hand, our lack of tenure ensures that we be unrelentingly civil and constructive in reviews, but what if there's simply no grounds for being civil and constructive? I know I don't want to make enemies in print, but I also want to be honest, and write a review I can live with. I wish there were some informal but reliable norm that such books, once identified, be immediately shipped to senior, tenured faculty to review with impunity!

Hilaire said...

Thanks, guys. lil'rumpus, your suggestion is great. After I finished the book today I spent some time thinking about how to construct the review in the way you suggest. It works.

And loren, yeah, you're so right - I now wish that I didn't have to do this review. In fact, though, I *requested* it, seeing as how the book was exactly relevant to my subfield, and I thought it'd be a good opportunity to read it. Little did I know it would be such a disaster! I'll have to tread very carefully, as you say, particularly as this is the only academic journal in my subfield and I want to make good contacts out of the people there.